If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being crazy from pop culture, it’s that being crazy makes you all kinds of creative. Apparently the creativity gets handed out at the door or something, at least if we’re to judge from the depictions of mental illness we encounter everywhere from medical dramas to science fiction shows. People really want to make sure you know that us crazy folks are creative.
It’s not that we’re creative and also crazy. It’s that the creative makes us crazy, or possibly the other way around. The two traits are so closely intertwined that they cannot really be separated. I encounter this a lot when it comes to depictions of disability; two things are conflated and tied together when disability is involved. Someone who is evil and uses a wheelchair is evil because of the wheelchair. A person who is unreliable in relationships and also depressed is unreliable because of the depression. And so forth.
As a writer, I often encounter the attitude that my crazy and my writing are closely intertwined; that, for example, I’m able to produce the kind of work I do because I’m mentally ill. Not because I’ve worked hard on refining my writing abilities and continue to work on being a better, stronger, more communicative writer. Or people think that my writing is an expression of my crazy, or that maybe I wouldn’t be so damn crazy if I didn’t write so much. None of these things are true; while my mental illnesses certainly influence who I am and how I express myself, there’s not a causative relationship going on here.
Mental illness and creativity go together like ice cream and apple pie, evidently. How many of you have seen a movie or television show where an institutionalised person creates amazing art on the walls, desperate for an outlet? How many have seen depictions of painters carried away in ambulances, writers scribbling with crazed gleams in their eyes, photographers feeling ‘blocked’ by their medications?
Pop culture tells us that mental illness is something that needs to be controlled, and, handily, tells us all about the mechanism of that control: pharmaceuticals. Many people come away with the idea that all mental illnesses can be controlled with medication and that the same medications and dosages can be used broadly in patients with the same conditions; depression can be treated by the same medication in two different people, say, or everyone with schizophrenia can take the same kind of medication. It’s one size fits all and take your pills, dear.
We sometimes get hints of things like therapy, we learn that institutions are bad (because the crazy wasn’t sufficiently controlled and the person had to be locked up for ‘safety’ and everyone feels just awful about the whole thing), and we learn that people who do not take their medications are dangerous. Or they’re liars, or they’re planning something bad. Over and over we are told that everyone with mental illness must take their medications. If we are meant to feel sorry for the person, we find out that the medication has unpleasant side effects like weight gain or tremors or loss of creativity.
Now, all of these things are real side effects, and there’s a whole laundry list of other side effects that can come with psychiatric medication. When you are taking medications that alter your brain chemistry, there’s a strong chance that certain aspects of cognition are going to change. Medications can have a dulling effect, making it harder to focus, harder to comprehend, harder to work. Many people also experience side effects like fatigue while taking medications. In the real world, patients would ideally weigh the costs and benefits and make their own decisions about whether they want to medicate, and how.
That’s not usually how it works out. People may be compelled to take medications in a variety of ways, ranging from people threatening to take their children away unless they comply with a medication schedule to court orders appointing guardians who can force them to take drugs against their will because they’re deemed incompetent. People can have their personal rights and liberties stripped away with a psychiatric hold and if compelling evidence can be mustered, that hold can be turned into a longer stay in an institution, where you need to play the game right with the doctors if you want to get out and have your rights restored.
This doesn’t come up in pop culture so much. Instead, we are presented with The Crazy as a dangerous thing that also makes people creative. Evocative scenes designed to spark pity centre around people being forced to give up their art in order to be better, as defined by society and the people around them. Or we have scenarios where people skew back and forth between taking meds and not, trying to take advantage of their mental illness-induced creativity before The Crazy becomes overwhelming and they have to go back on medication.
The tropes about creativity and mental illness have a tendency to create weird and dangerous ideas both about creative people and mentally ill people. It doesn’t escape my notice that the mental health of a lot of creators is heavily policed in the media, especially when it comes to female celebrities. People tend to think that extreme expressions of creativity must go hand in hand with mental illness; that no ‘sane’ person could produce great works of art. And conversely, that art creates suffering, because mental illness is assumed to be suffering. Those poor artists, inflicting mental illness upon themselves in order to be able to continue creating.
Lots of people with mental illness are creative. Lots aren’t. Lots of creative people do not have mental illness. Correlation, as they say, is not causation, and it doesn’t follow that if someone is mentally ill, that person is ‘naturally’ creative, nor does it follow that creating works of art makes people crazy. Yet, it’s a persistent and widespread belief.